Wisdom gleaned from money polls, studies

Amid this year's deluge of holiday spending surveys by companies trying to grab some attention, several other recent polls and studies are addressing arguably more important issues, such as financial bullying, money spent on financial literacy and whether "Made in USA" is better.

Here is a sampling.

Money bullies. One in 10 Americans classify their spouse or live-in partner as a "financial bully," according to a survey by Credit Karma and Harris Interactive. Perhaps the finding isn't so important as the concept that one partner can be domineering when it comes to spending and debt.

Financial bullies intimidate and manipulate their partners by controlling household finances. They might make their partner feel guilty about shopping, force them to show receipts, dole out an allowance or restrict credit card access.

Perhaps a surprise in the survey is that the percentage of men and women who report being financially bullied is almost equal. And men ages 18 to 34 are more likely to say they're bullied than their female counterparts, 33 percent versus 7 percent. Bullying is not when one spouse or partner regularly handles all the routine bill-paying. Opposites attract, and often one person is more detail-oriented and tends to handle that. But both should monitor online accounts and be involved in strategic decisions with spending, debt and investing.

Unfair fight? Financial services marketers, such as banks promoting credit cards, outspend financial education efforts 25-to-1, according to a recent study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And that doesn't even include marketing spending on the two huge areas of investments and insurance.

"When consumers receive the vast majority of their financial information from companies that are trying to promote an image or sell products, consumers have very little unbiased information," said bureau Director Richard Cordray, who called the difference in spending "staggering."

The report found that the financial services industry spends about $17 billion a year marketing financial products and services to consumers, but only $670million is spent annually to provide financial education to consumers.

"Consumers are seeing financial marketing everywhere they turn — online, in their mailbox and in their family room on the television," Cordray said. "By contrast, very little of the money spent on financial education efforts is put toward any type of advertising."

Financial education has moved from being an obvious public policy initiative to being controversial because, by some measures, current efforts don't seem to be working well. Time lag is one reason. A consumer taking a money course in high school probably won't retain details a decade later when they're shopping for a mortgage.

Where to go for unbiased financial information to educate yourself? There are many resources, including books and some blogs. A well-regarded general book, for example, is "Personal Finance for Dummies" by Eric Tyson. Always assess who is giving the information and why. The bureau hosts a site at consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb, as does the Federal Trade Commission, at consumer.ftc.gov.

Credit bureaus uneven at correcting errors. The good news is that thousands of consumers with errors on their credit reports are getting relief through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The bad news is, credit reporting agencies vary widely in how they respond to consumer complaints, according to an analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund. For example, Equifax responded to more than half of consumers with relief, while Experian helped only 5 percent, with the other major agency, TransUnion, in the middle. The report used data collected by the financial protection bureau's public Consumer Complaints Database, created to help consumers resolve problems with their credit reports. Studies have found that millions of Americans have serious errors on their credit reports. That's potentially a big deal because errors can hurt a consumer's ability to get an affordable loan, rent an apartment or even land a job. Check your reports for errors once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com.

Travel insurance advisory. As you book airfare for holiday travel and winter vacations, think twice before buying air travel "protection" insurance policies, says the National Consumers League. The group found that while online travel websites offer insurance as "peace of mind" for the consumer, some of the most popular policies give little actual protection if something unexpected forces a change in travel plans. The group's inspection of travel-insurance policies revealed a long list of exclusions, including common scenarios such as illness involving an existing medical condition, pregnancy or childbirth, termination of employment and a business meeting being canceled.

"Travel insurance gives consumers a false sense of comfort that they will be covered in the event they need to change their flight," said John Breyault, league vice president and author of the report. "In reality, these policies are riddled with exclusions and exceptions, and are likely a bad deal for consumers."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association called the report "flawed" because it focused on online sales of trip-cancellation insurance but painted with a broad brush stroke the whole travel insurance industry. "Travel insurance, like all insurance, covers specific circumstances and conditions listed in each policy," said spokeswoman Linda Kundell. "Policies differ, and (the insurance association) always recommends that travelers review their policy so that they know what is and what is not covered."

"Made in USA" myth? People might assume that products made in America tend to be more costly but are superior in quality. But a recent study, which was more anecdotal than scientific, found no evidence of either. Cheapism.com, which looks for value among lower-priced brands within product categories, sent a researcher into a Wal-Mart, which has been touting its "Made in USA" offerings, to buy and test several items made domestically against imports.

Items included socks, towels, skillets, light bulbs and kitchen mats. The findings? The cost was about the same: U.S.-made items cost a total of $57.50, while imports totaled $55.46. But quality varied, with no clear winner.

"Although we're happy to get on board the USA-made train, we also pay homage to value pricing and quality performance," the report said. "We found no clear-cut association among country of origin, price and quality."

Of course, many people prefer American-made products for philosophical or political reasons more than value reasons.

gkarp@tribune.com

Twitter @spendingsmart

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